Identifying and Managing MS Relapse

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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, autoimmune-mediated ­disorder of the central nervous system that affects more than 40,000 people in the United States. About 85% of cases are categorized as relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), based on the clinical and radiographic pattern of focal demyelination in different regions of the brain and spinal cord over time. Though not fully understood, the pathophysiology of RRMS involves axonal degeneration and inflammatory demyelination; the latter is considered a relapse in patients with an established MS diagnosis.


MS relapse can have a significant impact on patients’ short- and long-term function, quality of life, and finances. Relapse may be identified via

  • New neurologic symptoms reported by the patient
  • New neurologic findings on physical examination
  • New radiographic findings on contrast-enhanced MRI of the central nervous system, or
  • Abnormal results of cerebrospinal fluid analysis.

Patient-reported symptoms and abnormal signs identified on physical exam should correspond with the area of the central nervous system affected. In some cases, patients may have radiographic evidence of relapse without symptoms or signs.

It is essential for health care providers to identify relapse, as it is an important marker of disease activity that may warrant treatment—particularly if symptoms are impacting function or if there is optic neuritis. MS relapse is also an indicator of suboptimal response to disease-modifying therapies.

Treatment of relapse is one component of RRMS management, which also includes symptom management and use of disease-modifying therapy to reduce risk for disease activity and decline in function.


Because risk for MS relapse cannot be predicted, both patients and providers need to have a high index of suspicion in the setting of new neurologic symptoms or decline in function. Relapse should be considered when these symptoms last longer than 24 hours in the absence of fever or infection. The clinical features of relapse should have corresponding radiographic evidence of active demyelination on contrast-enhanced MRI.

A pseudo-relapse is characterized by new or worsening neurologic symptoms lasting longer than 24 hours with concurrent fever, infection, or other metabolic derangement. Pseudo-relapse does not show radiographic evidence of active demyelination on contrast-enhanced MRI.

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